‘It’s beautiful!’ Sue Needham is looking at the first plate of her great-great-aunt Emily Harris’s hand-coloured New Zealand Flowers, Berries and Ferns at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. She hasn’t seen the books before. The rich yellows of Ranunculus pinguis, the native buttercup, leap from the page. ‘And look how carefully she’s modelled those leaves,’ Sue says, ‘the composition is great.’ We keep turning the pages of Flowers until all twelve plates have been examined. ‘I’m coming over all emotional,’ says Sue, and on we go into Berries (‘Look at that karaka, so orange’) and Ferns (‘I have two uncoloured plates at home, that one’s mine, and that one’).
Later we go to Newtown to meet Sue’s brother Peter Tregeagle. Peter is 6 years older than Sue. She wants to ask him what family stories he remembers. Peter tells us about their grandfather, Paddy (Harry) Moore, and grandmother Emma, who lived in Sydney. Then he shows us a small framed picture that Sue gave him some years ago. It’s a tiny oil painting, showing two girls above a coastline, one looking out and one perhaps looking at a sketchbook. ‘I think this came from our aunt Dot,’ says Sue.
It’s been framed to show the verso, and we read the inscription in Emily Harris’s handwriting:
With love & best
wishes for a
Happy New Year
And in the bottom left corner Emily has added the name of the artist: ‘Frances Harris.’
So we are looking at a painting by Emily’s younger sister Frances Harris (1842-1892). But who is the Frances receiving the little painting? There are two possibilities. It could be Emily’s niece Mary Frances Moore (1868-1896), known to the family as Fanny. Or, it could be an Australian Frances, daughter of Harry/Paddy Moore (1898-c.1991). Given that the painting itself is in Australia with Peter, it seems likely to be the Australian Frances, a great niece of Emily Harris.
We think the location of this scene is either somewhere along the Nelson coast or Taranaki. Frances Harris painted in both places.
Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis